#SPRUNTINGINJAPAN: shibuya, harajuku + omote-sando

Shibuya, Harajuku and Omote-sando make up a perfect trifecta of crazy street culture, luxury shopping, hustle and bustle and calm, quiet parks. Actually, it's a wonder how different it can be just one street over! Since we were staying in Shibuya we ended up eating out a lot here. Every corner you look there is a ramen bar, and seeing as that's one of our favourite foods, it would have been rude not to sample most of the ones near our place!

Apart from the (EXCELLENT) Ippudo Shiromaru Base we hunted out in central Shibuya, we just took a chance on all the others and we didn't have a single bad bowl of ramen. I don't even know if it's possible! Ramen bars in Tokyo aren't places to linger - you order your noodles, usually via a clever vending machine by the door, sit down (or stand, there are lots of standing ramen bars!), grab a glass of water and then slurp down your ramen. The louder the slurping, the better you're doing it; apparently that's the best way to cool the noodles down as you eat them and you should be able to finish a whole bowl in about 4 minutes!

The shopping in Shibuya is also pretty awesome. There are big outposts of H&M and Zara and a mammoth 6-floor Forever 21, but in terms of Japanese stores, make sure you go to Loft for cool stationery, design gadgets and everything you could possibly need for the home. We also liked Parco for cool, mid-priced Japanese designers and a 6th floor mecca to manga and the Muji superstore for everything you knew they sold, plus furniture, bicycles and a cafe! There are also three 109 stores dedicated to teen fashion; it's pretty overwhelming and noisy - an awesome experience if you've never been before - but we decided to completely bypass it on this occasion!

One of our absolute favourite stores in Shibuya is Village Vanguard, possibly the world's most random shopping experience. The main branch is open until midnight, making it a slightly surreal place to do some late night shopping (Darren 'forgot' that we spent over an hour scouring the manga section for a specific comic and requested - obliviously - to go back the next day...). They have everything - art books, comic books, novels, hipster backpacks, vintage American memorabilia, Moomin everything (the Japanese are obsessed with the Moomins), fancy dress costumes, snacks and so on, so if you ever have an hour or so to kill, Village Vanguard is your place!

In neighbouring Omote-sando, shopping is a much more luxury affair and slightly more relaxing, with plenty of designer boutiques for window shopping. I love the attention to detail in Japanese shops - the staff are so on point and everything is thoughtfully designed for the best shopping experience. Niko and... is one of those places; I love the industrial-inspired shop displays and the cute coffee bar inside makes it a destination as much as a place to shop.

Although the shopping might be expensive, you're never far away from a cheap eatery in Tokyo! Two of my favourites, Harajuku Gyoza Lou and Oreryushio Ramen, are just around the corner from Niko and... Unsurprisingly, the former is a gyoza joint serving up cheap and fresh dumplings. They come fried or steamed in plates of six for ¥290 (about £1.60!) so you can eat your fill for not very much money, but be prepared to queue. The second was one of my favourite bowls of ramen of the trip, with thick, creamy broth and plenty of toppings - you can see how happy I am!

While we were there it happened to be Japan's Fashion's Night Out so there were lots of shops open in the evening serving free drinks and special discounts. My friend took us up to the Tokyu Plaza roof terrace for a sunset view above Omote-sando. We brought cans of chu-hai, Japanese shochu spirit mixed with flavoured soda, to drink while we watched Tokyo's fashiony types mingle - p.s. culottes are BIG NEWS in Tokyo right now!

If you've never been to Tokyo, then Harajuku's famous Takeshita-dori is a must. It's famous for spawning Gwen Stefani's 'Harajuku girls' stage as it's where a lot of teenagers hang out, dress up and go crazy for cute stuff. We generally avoided it this time around, choosing just to quickly stroll through it to get to Meiji-jingu, one of Tokyo's biggest and most famous temples.

The Japanese take their green spaces seriously and the Meiji-jingu park is absolutely beautiful. It's hard to believe something so magnificent is just around the corner from crazy busy Shibuya. My friend's boyfriend told us the park was planted in honour of Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of Japan's modern era, who died in 1920. The temple opens out into Yoyogi Park and I was keen to visit a place I'd seen on the internet called Yoyogi Village, at the north end of the park. I love the whole urban greenery vibe so this place was a total dream, though popular too, so we didn't end up staying and headed back to the park for sundowner drinks of the canned variety ;)

I was so grateful to have my friend Ayumi show us around as she took us to plenty of her favourite local haunts. She's been my best friend for 15 years, but living across the world from each other we obviously don't get to see each other as much as we'd like! Her and her boyfriend were the perfect hosts, taking us to everywhere they could imagine that we would like. One of those places was a standing bar in Shibuya - I'm afraid I have no idea of the name, but it was the most unlikely spot for super fresh sashimi and cheap drinks.

You know when you take a nice picture and someone spoils it? Thanks for that one, Darren! Afterwards, we went to a place called Niku Yokocho and I'll say it again, Japan will never cease to surprise and amaze me. Like many Japanese eateries, you really have to hunt for it in unexpected places; in this case, on the upper floor of what looks like a weird office block/department store. This retro-style food court is a meat-lover's paradise; choose a vendor, sit down at a rickety table and order thinly sliced meat to grill on your own tabletop cooker. My friend told us afterwards that we were actually eating horse...thanks dude. But, y'know, immersing ourselves in the culture and all that. After raw chicken, I'll try anything!

#SPRUNTINGINJAPAN: airbnb, shinsen + shimokitazawa

The best thing about staying in an Airbnb is that you can feel completely at home, wherever you are in the world. We saved a lot of money staying in this cute little apartment literally 5 minutes walk from Shibuya's crazy scramble crossing and it made a world of difference being able to do laundry and have space to spread out (Tokyo's hotels are notoriously small and expensive).

We arrived from Kyoto early in the evening and scouted out our nearest supermarket. Our first night we bought a selection of goodies from the deli section (I have very fond memories of dinners like this from when I was younger) - including hot rice fresh from a rice cooker! It was nice to get some fresh vegetables too, as by this point it felt like we had ramen coming out of our ears!

While we chose the apartment for its proximity to Shibuya (more on that in another post), it was a nice surprise that the neighbourhood of Shinsen, a minute's walk away, is a nice destination in its own right with the aforementioned supermarket, cute little coffee shops and nice restaurants. We visited a little restaurant called Kaikaya By The Sea on our second night as we'd spotted it during the day. I think it must be in a guidebook somewhere as it was full of tourists, but it didn't detract from the atmosphere and the waiters were a lot of fun!

A lot of Japanese restaurants don't have menus outside and as we just walked in, we weren't sure what to expect! Most of the dishes were fusion style and a little more expensive than we were expecting, so we ordered sparingly but the two dishes below stood out: a plump prawn and sweetcorn kakiage - a sort of deep fried tempura disc - and tuna spareribs, the restaurant's signature dish.

One of the best things about our visit was that two of my best friends - Mariko, from uni, and Ayumi, who I met at school in Japan 15 years ago (!!) - are now both living in Tokyo and also happen to be friends. I was so grateful to have our own personal tour guides, as they introduced us to so many places we wouldn't have found on our own. Shimokitaza is one of those places - it's two stops away from Shinsen and I'd never heard of it, but apparently it's a very popular neighbourhood with tourists and locals alike. There's a low-key vibe and it's much quieter than Shibuya, but there are street upon street of little restaurants, vintage shops and arcades.

On one of our first nights, Ayumi took us to an izakaya serving yakitori. The Japanese drinking culture is very different from the UK - it's actually really hard to find a bar where you just go to drink. Usually, you'll spend an evening in an izakaya, an informal restaurant, drinking and eating small plates. I suppose it's similar to parts of Europe, where everything is enjoyed together and as much emphasis is placed on the food as the drink. Yakitori is classic izakaya fare - grilled chicken skewers. There are plenty of different varieties, from hearts (which became Darren's personal favourite!) to juicy chicken thighs with spring onion or minced meatballs served with a raw egg yolk - by the way, salmonella doesn't really exist in Japan and on one night we even had raw chicken, which was surprisingly delicious and tasted like the most soft, tender sashimi!

Most of the places we went I didn't write down the names as 1) some restaurants didn't even seem to have signs! and 2) in most cases I wouldn't have been able to write them down for you anyway. One place I made sure to make a note of, though, was Katsu. This super-informal izakaya was probably our favourite place from our whole trip and even when we went back alone without our friends, the staff remembered us and were so kind and helpful trying to explain the menu and giving us things to taste.

If you're looking for somewhere to stay in Tokyo, I really loved both our apartment and the neighbourhood and I'm still dreaming of that kara-age (the Japanese fried chicken above!).
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